NATO said today it was prepared to deploy troops in Turkey to defend its ally after violations of Turkish airspace by Russian jets bombing Syria, and Britain scolded Moscow for escalating a civil war that has already killed 250,000 people.
"NATO is ready and able to defend all allies, including Turkey, against any threats," Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters as he arrived for the meeting of defense ministers in Brussels.
Meanwhile, the US State Department claimed that a huge percentage of Moscow's attacks were not striking Islamic State (IS) targets but hitting moderate rebel groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad instead.
"Greater than 90 percent of the strikes that we've seen them take to date have not been against ISIL [an alternative acronym for IS] or al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists," said state department spokesman John Kirby. "They've been largely against opposition groups that want a better future for Syria and don't want to see the Assad regime stay in power."
Syrian troops and allied militia backed by the Russian air strikes attacked rebels in the Ghab Plain in western Syria on Thursday, and the army chief said a major offensive was underway to recapture territory from insurgents.
The rebel advance into the Ghab region nearly two months ago had threatened the coastal region vital to Assad's control of western Syria and catalyzed Russia's intervention on his side last week.
Ground forces targeted insurgent-held areas with heavy barrages of surface-to-surface missiles as Russian jets bombed from above, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a rebel fighting there said.
Syrian armed forces "have launched wide-ranging attacks to deal with the terrorist groups, and to liberate the areas which had suffered from the terrorist rule and crimes," Lt. Gen. Ali Abdullah Ayoub was quoted as saying by state media.
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Officials at NATO are still smarting from Russia's weekend incursions into Turkey's airspace near northern Syria, however, and defense ministers are meeting in Brussels today with the agenda likely to be dominated by the Syria crisis.
"NATO has already responded by increasing our capacity, our ability, our preparedness to deploy forces including to the south, including in Turkey," said Stoltenberg, noting that Russia's air and cruise missile strikes were "reasons for concern".
As Russian and US planes fly combat missions over the same country for the first time since World War II, NATO is eager to avoid any international escalation of the Syrian conflict that has unexpectedly turned the alliance's attention away from Ukraine following Russia's annexation of Crimea last year.
The incursions of two Russian fighters in Turkish airspace on Saturday and Sunday has brought the Syria conflict right up to NATO's borders, testing the alliance's ability to deter a newly assertive Russia without seeking direct confrontation.
While the United States has ruled out military cooperation with Russia in Syria, NATO defense ministers will discuss how to encourage Russia to help resolve the crisis, betting that Moscow also wants to avoid being bogged down in a long conflict.
"There has to be a political solution, a transition," Stoltenberg said.
"Russia is making a very serious situation in Syria much more dangerous," Britain's defense minister, Michael Fallon said, calling on Moscow to use its influence on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stop bombing civilians.
France and Britain, NATO's two main European powers, are understood to be willing to see the alliance use its new 5,000-strong rapid reaction force beyond NATO borders, potentially helping stabilize post-conflict governments in Libya or Syria.
"We need to agree a long-term approach to Russia. But NATO needs a strategy to its south," Britain's envoy to NATO, Adam Thomson, said on the eve of the meeting.
"The world is changing and NATO needs to develop the ability to react to many things at once," he said.
Other nations, including Poland and the Baltics, want a permanent NATO presence on their territory to act as a credible deterrent to any further effort by Russian President Vladimir Putin to gain influence in former Soviet states.
Fallon underscored the balancing act, saying that Britain would send some troops to Poland and the Baltics for training, as NATO opens small new command posts in eastern Europe.
"That is part of our policy of more persistent presence on the eastern side of NATO to respond to any further Russian provocation and aggression," he said.
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